Birth registration of South Sudanese refugee children: the view from Uganda
4 December 2017
In August 2014, eight months after the war in South Sudan began, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) described it as “a war on the children of South Sudan”. More than three years later, the violence in South Sudan continues, and children continue to be the victims of atrocities and to suffer from the worsening humanitarian crisis the war has caused.
The conflict in South Sudan has resulted in what is currently Africa's largest refugee crisis. More than two million South Sudanese have fled their country to Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, including some 1.3 million children. Some of these children have now been displaced for the first time, but many others have already lived in exile before.
One of the implications of this mass displacement from South Sudan is another generation of South Sudanese children born as refugees. And with a seemingly intractable conflict in South Sudan, it seems unlikely that they will be able to go there any time soon. Meanwhile, guaranteeing they have full access to birth registration is crucial, but despite the efforts of governments and NGOs this remains a challenge.
Non-displaced populations and refugees can encounter qualitatively similar challenges when it comes to accessing civil registration, but these challenges are often exacerbated by the realities of displacement. Even in those countries of asylum in which national policies are formally in place, lack of awareness and limited access to services mean that many births are still not registered. For instance, UNHCR has recently estimated that more than 70,000 refugee children born in Ethiopia during last decade have not been registered.
While no such estimate has been published for Uganda, which is currently hosting over one million South Sudanese refugees, major steps have been taken in the country in recent years to increase the rates of birth registration among the general population, including refugees.
Birth registration for refugees in Uganda: legislation, procedures and challenges
The right of every child to be registered at birth is enshrined in both international and Ugandan law, with neither making a distinction between children born to refugees or asylum seekers, and those born to citizens of Uganda. According to Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – which was ratified by Uganda in 1990 – “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name,” and “the right to acquire a nationality.” According to Article 6 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, “Every child shall be registered immediately after birth” and Article 18 of Uganda’s 1995 Constitutions states that “The State shall register every birth, marriage and death occurring in Uganda.”
Until recently it was the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) that was in charge of registering births and deaths in Uganda. However, the Registration of Persons Act 2015 (2015 Act)established a new independent body, the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), which is now mandated not only to create, manage and maintain the National Identification Register, but also “to register births and deaths” (Art. 5). The 2015 Act makes the registration of every birth within Uganda both free and compulsory (Art. 28).
Birth registration in Uganda is done via the Mobile Vital Recording System (MVRS), through which births are registered using a web based application and mobile phones. When a baby is born, whether a national of Uganda or not, his or her birth is registered through the MVRS and a birth notification record is issued. If a baby is born in a hospital, the birth can usually be registered there. If the baby is born outside a hospital, his or her parents have to register the birth with the local authorities. In refugee settlements, this can be done by block leaders, for instance. When a birth is recorded outside a medical facility, however, parents are required to have it stamped by an official at the sub-county level.
A birth notification includes the details of the parents, the sex of the baby, its name and the time and date of the birth. When registered at birth, any child not born to Ugandan citizens gets an Alien Identification Number, rather than a National Identification Number. According to UNICEF, between January and November 2016, 23,680 children born to refugee parents in Uganda were registered using the MVRS. The rates of birth registration among the general population in Uganda have risen from 30 percent to 69 percent between 2011 and the end of 2016, following the introduction of the MVRS which replaced the paper-based system previously used to record births.
While a birth notification is not a legal registration record and does not replace a birth certificate, registering a birth and receiving a birth notification is crucial for helping to ensure the baby’s ability to access identity documents in the future. In order to be issued with a birth certificate, the parents of the baby have to apply at one of NIRA’s centres. NIRA has centres in all four regions of Uganda, including in Arua and Gulu, in the northern part of the country, where most of the South Sudanese refugees live. For refugees, birth certificates are issued for free.
Despite the existing structures, in reality ensuring all children are documented is more complex. Lack of awareness often means that parents do not understand the difference between the notification they get when a child is born and a birth certificate, and they often assume that there is no need to apply for an additional document after the notification is issued. Moreover, even though the service itself is free, access to it may require resources that refugees do not necessarily have, such as money for public transport. Finally, given that, for example, a birth certificate is not required for accessing food or health services in the refugee settlements, a birth certificate does not always seem particularly important when children are very young, as they are not immediately needed.
Some NGOs in Uganda have been working with the government to address these challenges. For example, Plan International has been working to both raise awareness and make services more accessible to refugees by conducting special campaigns in the settlements, in collaboration with NIRA. Their efforts have enabled thousands of children to be issued with certificates without traveling to NIRA’s regional office.
Child protection and potential long-term implications
Even though parents may not view birth registration as something that is immediately crucial for their child’s safety or well-being, the implication of having no proof of age and identity can be serious, and as UNHCR’s Executive Committee stressed, “civil registration and documentation, especially birth registration as a proof of birth of a person, contribute to enhancing protection and the implementation of durable solutions, including by documenting links with countries of origin.”
Children who are not documented may be denied access to health and education services, may be more vulnerable to abuse and discrimination and, as adults, may face challenges in obtaining a job, accessing higher education and buying properties. Registration can also contribute to the protection of human rights because it provides important data for policy makers and humanitarian actors, enabling them to make the relevant policies more effective. Therefore, given that many South Sudanese refugees are likely to remain in exile for a long period of time, guaranteeing they are recognised and documented is particularly important.
At the same time, birth registration can also play an important role in the prevention of statelessness, especially in the case of refugees, as lack of documentation makes it harder for individuals later on in their lives to prove their nationality or, at least, to prove where they were born and to whom. The full implications of the current refugee crisis on statelessness and access to citizenship in South Sudan are yet to be properly studied. But just like the violence in the country, the effects of displacement on access to citizenship are likely to be strongly linked to questions of ethnicity.
South Sudan’s Nationality Act of 2011, which is considered to be a relatively generous one, grants citizenship to anyone whose ancestors were South Sudanese and to anyone who “belongs to one of the indigenous ethnic communities of South Sudan” (Art. 8). This broad definition can help preventing statelessness as it makes it relatively easy for many to prove that they are South Sudanese even when they lack a birth certificate or other identity documents.
At the same time, however, the country’s ethnicity-based nationality law also means that some people from small communities who have no clear and obvious ethnic links to South Sudan often struggle to prove their nationality. Notably, South Sudanese law does not stipulate who South Sudan’s “indigenous ethnic communities” are or how one qualifies as belonging to them, leaving it to the authorities to decide, and there have been indications of “tendencies of marginalization practices on ethnic basis” within the country’s citizenship bureaucracy. Those who cannot prove ethnic affinity to South Sudan and lack documentation that proves they have family links to South Sudanese nationals, are at particular risk of becoming stateless.
Ultimately, the challenges the current mass displacement out of South Sudan presents, as well as its long-term implications, can only be understood as part of a much longer history of displacement and violence. At the time of independence in 2011, only one third of South Sudan’s population was registered, and when the current conflict broke out, the country was still struggling to make sense of the bureaucratic and legal implications of its separation from the north. Now, war and displacement are once again reshaping the region, its people and its citizenship practices.